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Posted on 15 Dec 2020 in Fiction |

THOMAS McMULLAN The Last Good Man. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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Thomas McMullan’s debut novel explores truth, justice and punishment – and who gets to decide them.

The air is rich enough to turn stones to men and men to stone. Careful not to step on anything that will make a noise, Peck edges towards the sound of heavy breathing, towards the black mark that becomes a body in the bog.

Duncan Peck watches as a group of men and women in hooded raincoats pull a man from the bog, bind him, and cart him away in a wheelbarrow. Leading the group is James Hale, the boy his mother had taken in, the ‘cousin’ he had grown up with and grown to love; the man who had crept way from the house in the night, leaving him alone in the crumbling city where food was running out and danger was everywhere.

Hale had finally written to him, inviting him to join him in a remote and isolated village on Dartmoor. Now, Peck stays hidden from the rain-coated group but in the fading light he follows their faint tracks across the bog-strewn moorland. The first sign he sees of the village is a wall ‘the size of a large barn’. As he gets closer, he sees that it stands alone and there are papers and posters stuck to it. Some have simple community messages and requests, but at the top of the wall are posters scrawled in red paint and in capital letters:

GEOFF SHARPE DOESN’T CUT THE MEAT GOOD. I SAW GEOFF SHARPE STEALING SLIVERS. NOBODY LIKES GEOFF SHARP. I HOPE GEOFF SHARPE DIES.

Peck is nervous, not knowing what to expect in this strange place, and not knowing how his ‘cousin’ will react to his sudden, unannounced arrival. Having secretly watched Hale and another man through an uncurtained window, he enters Hale’s home with a revolver cocked. Hale welcomes him and introduces him to his neighbour, Peter, who confiscates the gun, telling Peck that guns are banned in this village. This gun, however, will eventually cause much damage.

The tension McMullan builds in these opening pages is sustained throughout the book. Partly, it is fuelled by Peck’s own uncertainties as a stranger in a close community that has developed its own system of control and justice. He questions the influence of the wall, where anonymous people write their opinions and make accusations. And he is disturbed by the sorts of ‘atonement’ those deemed transgressors of the community’s values must make. These include being exposed to public ridicule in the stocks; carrying heavy pieces of furniture roped to their backs; or having a limb deliberately broken. He and Hale also share a past trauma linked to the death of Peck’s mother, and this is gradually revealed as Peck recalls their boyhood.

Hale, Peck learns, has become leader of the ‘chasers’, who bring back those who run away from justice. Hale decides the atonement and administers the blows to break a limb if he deems this necessary. He is a powerful man in the village, but Peck, as an outsider, sees the way this village functions, sees the way gossip and ill-feeling can distort the truth, and sees the usual human flaws hidden and revealed. The village seems well-established, but:

After enthusing about the apple trees and the barley fields, the school and the pub, there are questions about the wall, the stage and scaffold in the middle of the green, the furniture carried about. Hale does his best to listen to Peck’s misgivings. ‘It keeps the peace’ he assures.

Hale’s neighbour, Peter, is an awkward, ineffectual man, who is a poor workman and makes a joke of his own clumsiness. He has alienated people, and someone writes terrible (false) accusations about him on the wall. When Peter panics and runs away, Hale and his ‘chasers’ go after him, and Peck is persuaded to go with them. This precipitates a dramatic chain of events which link Hale, Peck, Peter, Peter’s wife Charlotte and their young daughter, Maisie. The system of law and order in the village is compromised and Peck’s own ideas of change for the good are tested.

Charlotte and Maisie are interesting characters, and Charlotte’s thoughts and emotions are threaded through the pages. When she, too, runs away, her experiences on the moors offer a different view of the way in which the community works.

Thomas McMullan tells a dramatic story and he tells it well. He conveys the mixed emotions of his characters with empathy and handles violence plainly and, sometimes, with surprising poetic imagery. Occasionally his imagery becomes strange – ‘the night sits with its knees under its chin’; ‘the candles are lonely’ – but this poetic flair brings village life and the Dartmoor landscape to life.

Underlying the story, but never obtrusive, is an exploration of the way in which people communicate with each other and how group opinions influence truth and justice – something that is currently very relevant.

In a ‘Note from the Author’ which accompanied my proof copy (and which I expect will be incorporated in the final book) McMullan describes how the book began after he had encountered an old wall plastered with papers in a room in a Chinese university where the photocopying machines were kept. When the words were translated for him by a Chinese friend, he learned that they were ‘crude, hateful, often sexual slurs about named people’ – ‘a vile type of graffiti’. He learned, too, that these public writings had been part of Chinese culture since imperial times but were best known now for their use during the Cultural Revolution. This wall represented a ‘violent tradition’ being continued.

McMullan’s own assessment of The Last Good Man rings true:

Truth, language and identity are at the heart of this book, but this is ultimately a story about people holding themselves together, living with grief, contending with ideas of goodness.

Thomas McMullan The Last Good Man Bloomsbury 2020 PB 320pp $29.99

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (ann.skea.com) are archived by the British Library.

You can buy The Last Good Man from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.